In a manner reminiscent of the witch hunts in early modern Europe, Papua New Guinea has experienced an increase in “witch” persecutions, and the same phenomenon has been observed in Africa, particularly in Nigeria.
The experience of Nigerian Mary Sudnad, 10, reported by The Guardian, is perhaps typical. Mary’s brother fell ill and died, and the Christian pastor told her mother that his death was caused by Mary’s witchcraft. In response, her mother left her to be beaten by a gang of three ‘vigilantes.’ The following day, after an attempt at exorcism, the mother threw caustic soda in Mary’s face before abandoning her on a field.
Though in Nigeria the persecutions focus on children and in Papua New Guinea on women, the scenario is similar in both countries: the so-called witches are blamed for deaths or diseases in the community, or held responsible for social ills. Sometimes they are considered witches simply because their behavior is unruly or socially unacceptable.
These ‘witches’ are singled out usually by men that wield spiritual power in the community: Christian pastors in Nigeria, or elder tribal councilmen in Papua. The sentence is banishment, torture or death. In Nigeria, it is usually parents or community ‘vigilantes’ that enact the penalties, while in Papua there are organized groups of ‘witch hunters’ whose only purpose is to mete out the punishment.
Many witch children suffer incredible abuse, from beatings, starvations, burnings by caustic soda or torturing by nails driven in their head. Others are never found, being killed in forests or buried alive. It is usually parents who perpetrate these abuses, prompted by the preachers. In Guinea, the ‘witches’ – usually old women with no siblings to protect them – are usually tortured into confessing their ‘deed’ and then killed.
Despite the harshness of the punishments enacted against the ‘witches,’ local communities often condone or even encourage the practice. As a Papuan witch hunter puts it, “It is part of my culture, my tradition, it’s my belief. I see myself as a guardian angel. We feel that we kill on good grounds and we’re working for the good of the people in the village.” A Nigerian mother who had abandoned her child for being a witch said that her daughter gave her a mysterious stomach illness: “It was my daughter who had caused this, she drew all the water from my body”. Similarly, Christian pastors in Nigeria explain their practices as containing evil perpetrated by witch malefactors.
A brief history
Belief in witches and witchcraft has been held by traditional cultures throughout the globe, including Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. Today, these beliefs for the most part survive in regions such as Africa, parts of India and Oceania. Witchcraft beliefs almost always take the form of small or larger scale persecution. The most notorious examples in the West were the early modern European witch hunts, when thousands of people were tortured and killed for allegedly being witches. However, the scale of the European witch hunts has never been established.
As early as 1937, English anthropologist Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard attributed witchcraft accusations and witch hunts to a belief system that seeks to explain misfortune. In that sense, witchcraft beliefs are a method of making sense of human suffering in the absence of scientific explanations. Indeed, as Pastor Jack Urame from the Melanesian Institute of Papua New Guinea points out, “natural causes for death or illness are just not accepted…So whenever someone dies in a village, a person must blamed.”
Witchcraft on the rise
A World Health Organization report observed in 2002 that every year more than 500 elderly women in Tanzania alone are killed for being ‘witches.’ Despite the lack of reliable statistics, anecdotal evidence and empirical observations seem to suggest that witchcraft persecutions, far from decreasing as 20th century anthropologists had predicted, are in fact on the rise. In Papua New Guinea, authorities have complained that the increasing number of witch persecutions has put major strains on the police force.
In Nigeria, according to UK’s The Telegraph, the number of children stigmatized as witches has grown at an alarming rate in the past ten years and has reached an estimated 15,000 in the Akwa Ibom state alone. A reason claimed for this, at least in Africa, is the influence of Christian pastors of Pentecostal or evangelical roots. In Papua, the government officially recognizes witchcraft beliefs under the 1976 Sorcery Act, but condemns witch branding and killings. The escalation in witch persecution deaths has previously prompted the Papuan government to organize a parliamentary commission to investigate the situation in the view of toughening the legal framework.
But governments and outside observers have been fairly ambivalent about the witch persecutions and hunts. Western anthropologists avoid the issue of witch hunt ethics by focusing on detached, scientific perspectives and the values of cultural relativism, and national governments have also generally refrained from drastic actions. In 2007, however, a UK Channel 4 documentary on Nigerian children witches prompted the Nigerian government to arrest self-styled bishop Sunday Okon Williams, accused of killing more than 110 children accused of being witches.
The road ahead
The issue of witchcraft persecutions touches on sensitive issues such as cultural tolerance, human rights and respect for regional beliefs. The matter also reaches deep into social and philosophical questions of whether ethics are universal or whether outside intervention may imply reverting to 19th-century cultural imperialism. Many influential 20th century anthropologists argued that witchcraft acts as a self-regulatory practice that resolves community conflict.
In response, there are other voices that contend that witchcraft persecutions are infringing on basic human rights. In light of the size of the phenomenon, a dialogue between all of the different sides may be a good place to start a discussion on the social impact of witchcraft today.